Minor roles eclipse stars

June 29, 2001

Coppola's crazy idea reminds Sandy Lieberson of a rerun of Friends .

Francis Ford Coppola's newest venture is a literary rather than a film event. Named after his film studio Zoetrope, Zoetrope: All-Story is a collection of short stories and essays. Just as in Hollywood, "literary godfather" Coppola's name goes above the title.

In his introduction, Coppola tells us how it all came about because of his fantasy of creating a "dream studio in the clouds where writers work in a bungalow with a huge yellow pencil hanging on the door". Coppola imagined himself working in the "crazy idea department", which is where he came up with the idea for this publishing venture. For those of you who might be suspicious, he explains that he does not want to discriminate against writers who do not happen to want to write stories for movies, so he is going to publish some of their work too. Nice to know there are a few of those writers left.

According to the publisher's blurb, Coppola's Zoetrope: All-Story is rescuing the "nearly anonymous short story format". Concerned by this claim I immediately checked out a couple of bookshops in London and was relieved to discover that contrary to Methuen's statement, the short story seems to be thriving. I found 18 titles in the anthology/short story section to choose from, and this number included none of the short-story works of writers such as Borges, Conrad, Kafka and Nabokov, not to mention Italo Calvino, Ian McEwan, John Updike and R. K. Narayan - all of whose short stories are kept under the author's own name. There were collections of stories from China, Japan, Latin America, North America, Africa and Ireland; even a collection of internet short stories, and of course numerous editions of Granta .

If we need more reassurance that the short story is not dying and by no means anonymous, Variety , the movie trade paper, recently informed us that it is not uncommon for short-story collections to be auctioned for $500,000.

Zoetrope is an interesting but mixed bag providing snapshots - featuring mainly the American way of life - of some short story writers, along with a few essays. All I can do in a short review is pick out a handful of those that caught my attention.

"The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing" by Melissa Bank started as a short story and wound up on the US bestseller list. No doubt we will one day see a screen version starring Julia Roberts. It chronicles the tortures of trying to live your life by the rules of self-help books (especially, how to meet and keep your man) and is a wry, witty and intimate modern tale of New York City told by a woman in a way that every man can understand.

Sara Powers's "The Baker's Wife" evokes the longings for love and trust in an interesting young West Texas couple living on the fringes. Is their relationship strong enough to include a marriage and a baby?

Tim Gautreaux's "Dancing with a One-Armed Gal" is as original as its title. A story set on the road in the southwestern United States, it brings together an unlikely young man and woman. Through their travels we get a touching insight into two people pretending to be who they are not.

"Notes to My Biographer" by Adam Haslett is a powerful, disturbing story of father and son, both schizophrenics. They come together after an 11-year separation and turn each other's life on its head. Here is a new and original literary voice.

Peter Lefcourt's "Thinning the Herd" is about the serial murders of famous, best-selling writers. Would we really miss Danielle Steel? This story feels as if it was written with more than one eye on a film sale to Hollywood.

Inevitably with a collection inspired by a film-maker, the subject of movies crops up in several of the pieces. A short story by David Mamet on what you might call the mammon factor for screen writers is ironic and revealing. According to Mamet, "the screenplay is not an act of creation, but an obeisance - it is a ceremony, a prostration, in which the individual's feelings and thoughts are offered to the golden calf: there is no lie I will not tell, no secret I will not reveal, no treasure I will not debase, if you will just buy my screenplay".

In a somewhat similar vein, Salman Rushdie regales us with his trials and tribulations in attempting to get a television serial made of his novel, Midnight's Children . His gossipy account somehow manages to cause no offence to anybody. If there is a lesson to be learnt here, it is that novelists should leave the adaptation of their work to others.

There are other worthwhile stories, but many seem as if they might be episodes of Seinfeld , Larry Sanders or Friends . I enjoyed reading Zoetrope: All-Story , but its territory is often closer to the plains of television than to the heights of literature.

Sandy Lieberson is a former president of 20th Century Fox. He has produced more than 30 films and documentaries.

Zoetrope: All-Story

Editor - Adrienne Brodeur and Samantha Schnee;
introduced by Francis Ford Coppola
ISBN - 0 413 76700 0
Publisher - Methuen
Price - £7.99
Pages - 268

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